Fifteen years ago I lived the life of the road warrior, something familiar to many of you reading this… three flights a week, tight connections, racing from terminal to terminal with a bag that felt heavier because of the rush. Then the dreaded flight delay, and to rub salt into the wound the disappointment of missing out on an upgrade seat by one person who I had just let check-in ahead of me because he looked flustered… not that after all these years I am still bitter about that!
Ah, those memories and guess what? I don’t miss it a bit.
Back then I was balancing the wizard in me, and although perhaps not quite 50/50 at the time, I had techniques to help me stay calm in any chaotic surroundings… the same techniques you can read about in Three Simple Steps. Even so, my mind was always doing cartwheels as it juggled agendas and tasks with the prospect of missing appointments, and always there was the pull in my solar plexus of being away from home.
Travel under any circumstances seems full of stress, and I especially notice when I watch families going on vacation supposedly to get away from the stress of their lives. They are the most frantic of all as they triple-check the tickets, double-check the seat assignments with the agent, arrange the bags every five minutes, and get in line to board twenty minutes before their seat numbers are called as if they fear someone will steal their seats, or the plane will leave without them. They get in every seasoned traveler’s way, but we always have the last laugh when, just as their seat number is called, little Johnny decides he needs to use the bathroom.
On-board I chose a window seat because I liked to see where I was leaving and landing. On the runway, engines powering up, I would stare out at the terminal swarming with planes of all shapes and sizes, workers intent on the task at hand and oblivious to the lives and plans of the passengers in the metal boxes above them, baggage handlers with a casual disregard for the belongings those passengers considered essential and precious in their lives, and emergency vehicles hovering menacingly as if a plane could burst into flames at any moment. I imagined it to be a massive logistical challenge and somewhere high above a manager would be perspiring profusely because his on-time statistics were threatened by our delayed departure. Everything about an airport seems huge and full of self-importance.
As was I… not huge, but full of self-importance. What I was doing and where I was going felt important to me. I felt important. My life and my dreams were important. Work tasks, personnel issues, mortgages, debt, family, goals, Intentions, dreams… all would swim around my neurons increasing the sense of importance of my life, and the pressure of stress. The same would be true for every adult in the packed plane. Two hundred brains full of life’s worries.
The time between boarding and take off is rarely long, but while passengers sit strapped to their seats, which we were just told doubled as life vests in the unlikely event of a water landing… although I have yet to see TV footage of passengers emerging from the ocean giving thanks to the seat bottom that saved them… unable to check their text messages (pagers in those days) time seemed to stretch. People started to get tetchy, and check their watches as if by doing so they could speed things along. Tension mounted. Passengers around me grumbled and frowned gloomily at the cabin door as if encouraging the pilot to overtake the planes ahead. Stress levels rose palpably with every person believing that their life, their needs, and their worries were the most important thing in the universe at that moment.
And this stage play is repeated on 87,000 other flights in the United States every day.
That’s right, there are on average 87,000 flights a day and despite how the media thirsts like vultures over an occasional downed one, most seem to buzz around our planet without issue. In fact flying is considerably safer than walking. In 2012 an unlucky 443 people died in airplane crashes, most of them in two incidences. We probably watched those play out for days on TV and in newspapers. 24,000 people, however, got zapped on the head by a bolt of lightning last year. I don’t recall seeing any of those on TV either. Statistically, however, you should never leave your home except in an airplane. Perspective.
Then takeoff at last, a time and experience that I always enjoyed, but most people just wound up tenser. Having been in the navy and taught the physics of wind and sail in which air moves faster over a curved surface creating low pressure, I understood the principle that so long as the engines pushed us along fast enough, the flat under-surface of the wing with its higher air-pressure had no choice but to rise. Flight is inevitable and no different than a sail pulling a boat deck through water at an angle to the wind. While others around me braced, I would feel relaxed for the first time since I got to the airport.
Then the airport that had seemed so large earlier when it made my leg muscles burn as I rushed through it, started to shrink below… just a couple of tracks with boring sheds around. Hardly frantic at all. No longer a massive logistical challenge, but just one of many constructions now. The planes on the runway, that a few seconds before dwarfed the one I was on, looked like children’s toys. Then I would notice the freeways like little pencil marks on a drawing, and the cars that had sped by the airport when we were on the ground, were like flies crawling on a piece of slate. The airport became but a spot on the edge of a large city and soon the city became a dot on the edge of a plain.
True perspective started to return to me, and I always wondered about the people in the box-like houses and the cars. What were those people thinking right now? What were their lives like? Were they all also frantic about something? I imagined most of them were stressed in some way, worrying about their next appointment, or rushing to pick kids up from school on time. Lots of them would be weighed down with money troubles, relationship issues, or work trauma. The weight of the world stoops most people’s shoulders because our worries feel so huge to us, and insurmountable at times.
I always had the urge to lean my head out of the porthole and shout to them to come up to the plane, and see their lives from this perspective. How small we all are in reality. How trivial are our worries when seen in the context of a larger panorama. Magically, my own worries and stresses fell away, and I’d look then above the clouds to the horizon and feel infinitesimally unimportant. Finally. What a stress relieving thing that was. How small I was in comparison to this massive planet.
Below me then I could see the country was mostly empty space. All that nonsense I had watched on TV about over population, global warming from car exhaust, and all that close-up footage of a raging hillside fire also fell into perspective. Sometimes we flew over those terrorizing fires, but from 30,000 feet they were hardly noticeable, a puff of smoke in a vast landscape, and America really is vast.
A couple of weeks ago, in a podcast about a “Spooky Reason to Take Quiet Time,” I mentioned that while we sit in a chair for twenty minutes each morning doing nothing, or remain strapped in our plane seat twiddling our thumbs while awaiting the ding-dong that tells us we are at 10,000 feet and can return to our frantic tasks that have been stuffed into a briefcase under our seats, we get the sensation of stillness, and a beautiful sensation it is. Even then, however, our world is spinning at 1000 miles an hour on its axis. While is spins, it travels around the sun at 67,000 miles and hour. That is enough to make us feel dizzy, but it gets crazier.
The Sun is moving upwards, out of the plane of the Milky Way, at a speed of 5 miles per second. If you want to jump off this ride and go back to the center of the galaxy then you would need to travel at the speed of light for 50 years back the way we came. If I started now I would get to the center just as I was born. Scientists now tell us that the sun appears to be cruising along inside the solar system at over 2 million miles an hour and we get dragged along with it.
In any moment we are traveling at $2.7 million miles an hour. Heady stuff, but doesn’t it start to put our lives, our worries and our fears into perspective? How small I am and how trivial the problems I think I have when seen from afar.
Last week Astrophysics Journal published some amazing data, picked up by a few networks and news outlets but doomed to the small print because no one who worked on the data died, had an affair with a politician (as far as I know), or was shot in the analysis of it.
The data show that our solar system has a tail just like the comet tails we see from time to time in the sky. It stretches out 100 billion miles, and from behind looks like a misty four leaf clover. The attached picture is an artist’s rendition. If the plane I were on turned around and flew at its current speed to the end of the tail it would take almost 23 million years to get there. That would be some flight-delay and diversion although some of my flight experiences have felt a bit like it in my mind at the time. Perspective.
If I did not feel small and insignificant in the universe while looking out of my plane porthole, then I do now. Seen from the perspective of the new data, our whole solar system is nothing but a pinprick of light zipping through space along with trillions of other pinpricks of light zipping in the same direction as the cosmos expands. Somewhere in that pinprick of light is a speck of dust called Earth, and on that speck is another road warrior rushing for a flight, feeling the weight of the universe on his or her shoulders.
If you feel that way about your life right now, and it is a real, genuine feeling for all of us at times, take a deep breath and perhaps a different perspective from beyond our pinprick of light that we call home and foolishly think so important and dominant in the universe.
Imagine you beam over the next pin prick of light, which is Canis Major and find a small speck of dust similar to planet earth. There will be thousands of them to choose from. Then sit on a mountain top and look up at the sky and there you can see our solar system and then you will have a true perspective for your worries and troubles. They are insignificant when viewed from Canis Major.